An Ancient Roman Apartment House: Then, Now, and In Between

In almost the exact geographical center of the modern city of Rome stands this brick Digital StillCameraruin. Every single day, thousands and thousands of tourists walk past it, and almost none of them have the slightest idea what it is. But if you understand the story behind it, the long and diverse history of this site is exceptionally interesting!

This is what’s left today of an ancient Roman apartment house. It dates back to the 100’s A.D., and was originally four stories high. As was typical of such structures at the time, the first floor consisted of shops, with entrances directly out onto the street–not much different from many apartment houses in Rome today. Archaeologists have reconstructed a model of the building as it must have looked back then, which you can see here.IMG_5464

In the Middle Ages and right into the Renaissance, however, numerous building-projects in this part of Rome transformed the appearance of this structure tremendously! For one thing, the church of Saint Rita was built directly into the left facade of the apartment house, which was used as its back wall. Here’s a 1665 sketch of the very same area, with Saint Rita’s (on IMG_5462the left) dominating the scene. By this time the apartment house was completely obscured by newer construction.

In 1911, a massive construction-project by the government of the fairly new Republic of Italy radically transformed this area. Saint Rita’s was actually moved down the street, where it is now a deconsecrated church-turned-art-gallery. And when the Renaissance church was detached from the front of the apartment house, a totally new discovery was made: there clearly had been yet another church on the very same site in the early Middle Ages, and Saint Rita’s had evidently been designed as its “updated” Renaissance replacement. Behind the sanctuary of Saint Rita’s was the Capitoline ruinsfrescoed apse of a medieval church which nobody had known about! Today, the frescos are covered with a little roof, to protect them from the wind and rain. In the last couple of years they were carefully cleaned and restored by conservationists. You can see the crucified Christ, having been taken down from the cross, with his Sorrowful Mother to the left, and a series of medallions encircling the scene, including the Lamb of God at the top.

Wow! There’s an awful lot of interesting history in this one spot, isn’t there? And yet those poor tourists who walk past this site by the thousands every day haven’t got a clue what they’re missing. There’s nothing but a tiny sign, in Italian, providing a few terse facts about the ancient site; the apartment house’s later history isn’t even mentioned. This is an excellent example of the kind of information that you can only get from a knowledgeable guide. Tour Rome with us, and we will clue you in!

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